Chinese Merchants in North Korea – Cure or Poison to Kim Jong Il?

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

90% daily goods made in China, 50% circulated by Chinese merchants

While some prospect that North Korea may be an affiliated market of China’s 4 provinces in the Northeast, the real focus is on the merchants who actually control North Korea’s markets. Recently, North Korean citizens have been asserting that markets would immobilize if Chinese merchants were to disappear.

Lately, Chinese merchants are nestling themselves with their newly found fortune in North Korea, undeniably to the envy of North Korean citizens.

In a recent telephone conversation with the DailyNK, Kim Chang Yeol (pseudonym) a resident of Shinuiju said “Most of the tiled houses in Shinuiju are owned by Chinese merchants in Shinuiju are upper class and the rich.” Unlike Pyongyang, tiled houses in Shinuiju are greater in value than apartments. In particular, the homes owned by Chinese merchants are luxurious and impressing.

Kim said “At the moment, 90% of daily goods that are traded at Shinuiju markets are made in China.” What Kim means by 90% of goods is basically everything excluding agricultural produce and medicinal herbs. Apparently, about half of the (90% of) supplies are circulated by Chinese merchants.

Kim affirmed that the market system could be shaken if supplies were not provided by the Chinese merchants. Hence, Chinese merchants have elevated themselves in North Korea’s integrated market system, to the extent that the market could break down without their existence.

In addition to this, Chinese merchants are playing a vital role in conveying information about the external world into North Korea. Even in 2004, it was Chinese merchants to first telephone China through mobile phones relaying the news about the Yongcheon explosion. As a result, rumors say that the movement of Chinese merchants can either be a “cure” to the economic crisis in which the North Korean government seems unable to fix, or “poison,” as more and more foreign information flows into the country.

How many Chinese merchants are there in North Korea?

A report by China’s Liaoning-Chosun Newspaper in 2001 sourcing data from North Korea, states that immediately after WWII, approximately 80,000 overseas Chinese were residing in the Korean Peninsula. Then following the Korean War and the formation of a Chinese government, the majority of people, approximately 60,000 Chinese, returned home. In 1958, statistics show that 3,778 families of overseas Chinese were living in North Korea, totalling 14,351 people.

These Chinese engaged in business related to farming, home made handicrafts and restaurant business, and in the late 50’s, lost all this due to the implementation of economic planning and dictatorial regime. Since then, the majority of merchants continued to return to China until the early 80’s.

In 2001, Liaoning-Chosun Newspaper confirmed that approximately 6,000 Chinese were living in North Korea. Of this figure, more than half were residing in Pyongyang, approx. 300 families living in North Pyongan and approx. 300 families residing throughout Jagang and northern districts of South Hamkyung.

At present, there are 4 middle and high schools for children (11~17 years) of Chinese merchants, located in Pyongyang, Chongjin, Shinuiju and Kanggae. In addition to these schools, there are a number of elementary schools (for children aged 7~11 years) located sporadically throughout each province.

Wang Ok Kyung (pseudonym) a resident of Shinuiju attended Chongjin Middle School for children of overseas Chinese in 1981~86. Wang said “At the time, there were about 40 students in each year. Now there is only about 5~6 students.” Nowadays, many Chinese children complete their elementary studies in North Korea, but the general trend is to send the children to China for middle school. She said “In order to enter a Chinese university, students must have completed their middle school studies in China and must be fluent in Chinese. He/she can also go to private institutes in China.”

Fortunes made through trade between North Korea-China during the food crisis

Even until the early 80’s there were no such thing as a wealthy North Korean-Chinese merchant. They were no different to North Korean citizens.

However, in the 80’s, many people began importing and selling goods such as socks, handkerchiefs, hand mirrors and cards from China, literally through their sacks. As the 90’s approached North Korean-Chinese merchants began to experience great wealth, the time where North Korea-China trade fundamentally kickstarted.

Today, Son Kwang Mi (pseudonym, 52) falls under the top 10 wealthiest Chinese merchants in Dandong, characterizing an unique rags to riches story. In the past, Sun lived in Chongjin and was one of the first figures to trade with China in the 80’s.

In the beginning, Son was so poor that she had to sell her watch received as a wedding gift in order to buy goods to sell.

Fortunately, Son found her money smuggling gold. In North Korea, gold is considered a public good or simply put Kim Jong Il’s personal inheritance, so private trade of gold is strictly regulated. Nonetheless, there are still some laborers who export gold secretly and a great number of people still collect gold through dubious ways. In particular, after the 80’s as North Korea began to experience economic decline, more and more people sold gold secretly.

Hence, a small number of Chinese merchants infiltrated the market of secretly trading gold with China. Chinese smugglers were able to take advantage of North Koreans by greatly raise their market margins, as the supply of gold and North Koreans wanting to sell their gold was high yet the demand in North Korea low.

Son said “Of the Chinese merchants in North Korea, 60% earned a great fortune at that time through illicit trade.”

She says that there were two opportunities for overseas Chinese to make a great fortune. The first was in 1985~89 through illicit trade of gold and the second, during North Korea’s mass food crisis in 1995~98.

“During the mass famine, everything in North Korea was in shortage and so Chinese merchants began to provide the daily necessities of life. At the time, if you brought large amounts of goods such as fabric and sugar, you could make a profit of 1 million Yuan (US$137,000),” she said.

Son was fortunate enough not to miss these two opportunities which led her to great wealth and allowed her to possess a fortune of 50 million Yuan (US$6.31 million).

Chinese merchants can relatively enter and exit China freely. Also, with the ability to speak Chinese fluently and the possibility of staying in the homes of many relatives in China, the occupation possesses ideal conditions.


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